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Norwalk political roundup: Budgets and a crackdown on Grasso

Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton speaks to Norwalk Common Council members, Thursday in City Hall.

Updated, 12:22 p.m.: Correction: $6 million; Copy edits, information added.

NORWALK, Conn. — Some Norwalk political information for you:

  • Norwalk would pay $1 million into teachers’ pensions, under Lamont’s proposal
  • Grasso violation ‘would be more urgent’ in Rowayton or Silvermine
  • Council set to set cap, opine on Rainy Day Fund

 

The 2019-20 recommended state budget

“When it comes to balancing the budget, my urgent priority is stabilizing the teachers’ pension fund. It is badly underfunded and doesn’t keep faith with our current teachers, especially the younger ones,” Gov. Ned Lamont said last week in his prepared remarks, as he presented a biennial state budget.

“Many of our school districts have chosen to pay their teachers much more than the state median. … Our budget will ask every municipality to make a contribution toward normal teacher costs, but towns like Greenwich, which pay teachers 30 percent more than the average salary, will pay more toward their pensions,” Lamont said.

Lamont’s recommended budget, a starting point for the legislature, calls for Norwalk to contribute $1,098,729 toward teachers pensions in 19-20 and nearly $2.3 million in 20-21.

Various adjustments in municipal funding amount to an $574,272 increase for Norwalk in 19-20, before you subtract the $1.1 million for teachers’ pensions. This means Norwalk would effectively see a $524,457 increase in expenses.

Again, this is a starting point for the cash-strapped legislature.

Norwalk Communications Manager Joshua Morgan in a Friday email wrote:

“Overall, we are pleased with Governor Lamont’s proposed budget. Although we do not believe it makes sense to transfer responsibility for the teacher pensions to municipalities, this is a fluid process with the State Legislature still needing to review and make its recommendations. The city is well positioned to absorb and react in a number of ways to changes in the state budget. There is plenty of time between now and when we need to adopt our budget.”

 

 

Grasso told to stop rock crushing

The City made Grasso Construction haul materials away from the tennis court construction site behind Nathaniel Ely School, Common Council member Ernie Dumas (D-District B) said last week.

“There’s more piles of dirt than what they dug up,” Dumas said.

Grasso brought materials onsite and was told to stop and remove the materials, Planning and Zoning Director Steven Kleppin said Wednesday.

Grasso was hired to remove earth and bedrock from the future location of Grassroots Tennis, Building and Facilities Manager Alan Lo explained recently in an email. The materials from offsite were “immediately removed and we documented it with pictures,” Lo said. “They were told that all additional material that is needed for this job must be crushed off site.

“We are putting pressure on them to put tarps on everything over there,” Dumas said Thursday.

“It’s our ultimate goal to make sure they comply with all the health and safety regulations, Council member Colin Hosten (D-At Large) said.

Council members are conducting an on-site inspection Wednesday, with the Norwalk Health Department and Lo, Dumas and Hosten said.

“If this were happening near a school in Silvermine or Rowayton, I think the response would be a lot more urgent. We want to make sure that we don’t shortchange our neighbors in South Norwalk,” Hosten said.

“They were claiming that (the residents) didn’t have complaints,” Dumas said. “A lot of these folks don’t know, what’s going on, what’s in the air.”
There were five complaints about rats when the work began, he said.

“Not getting a complaint is not a reason to not investigate if somebody is not abiding by the rules they are supposed to be abiding by. If they are in violation, people shouldn’t have to complain,” Hosten said. “Sometimes people don’t realize the rights that they have to a clean breathing environment.”

“Some folks are going to complain over there for the simple reason they are afraid of the violations that might cause them,” Dumas said.

 

 

Rainy Day considerations

The Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution putting Norwalk’s 2019-20 appropriations cap at $351,020,774.

You can expect many opinions expressed about the plan to drawdown the fund balance, or Rainy Day Fund, by $6 million as part of this budget cycle.

“To me, it’s cause for concern,” Council Majority Leader John Kydes (D-District C) said Thursday at the Council Finance Committee meeting, where  Committee Chairman Greg Burnett (D-At Large) queried Norwalk Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Thomas Hamilton to see if there is some way the Council could mandate that the $2.3 million in Rainy Day funds being sent to the Board of Education be used on the one-time expenses they are said to be earmarked for.

Hamilton, who is helping the City with the budget after the sudden departure of then-Chief Financial Officer Bob Barron, suggested that the Council could pass a resolution to that effect.

The $2.3 million for one-time expenses doesn’t cause a problem next year even with the state minimum budget requirement, because the Board of Education budget is “almost certainly going to go up more than $3.2 million anyway,” Hamilton said.

The City is mandated by law to fund the BoE with at least the amount it was given the previous year, under the minimum budget requirement.

Norwalk has $61 million in its general fund balance, and $57.7 million in the unassigned fund balance. That’s in contrast to $34.6 million unassigned in 2014.

You could fund school construction and avoid interest payments, Council member Doug Hempstead (R-District D) said Thursday, going on to suggest instead that the money could fund road paving, because “they’re bonded for 15 years, they don’t last quite 15 years.”

The Council needs to develop a fund balance ordinance, so it has some say over what the Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) does about the fund balance, Hempstead suggested.

“We talk about long term planning but we’re really not talking about long term planning, when we are just constantly, any kind of fiscal year, putting a patch on it,” Hempstead said. “Taking the $6 million is taking a patch on it. It’s great financial resources but by the same token, over the last three years if you’re growing that much, that’s tax dollars that could have been in the taxpayers’ pockets versus accumulating in a savings account that we are spending on operating, that we just said.

Council member Darlene Young (D-District B) said she agreed with some of those sentiments, explaining, “As someone who’s new to this process, I think there is some benefit to some long-term strategy or planning that could possibly be done.”

Council member Nick Sacchinelli (D-At Large) also said he’s concerned about drawing down the Rainy Day Fund, explaining, “Our constituents are expecting us to make reasonable decisions. So, we are making these decisions based on the information that is provided us and the information I have been provided for the last four years is be cautious with how you draw down and how it’s applied.”

The startling lack of controversy about this topic overall was evidenced by the lack of attendance at the Committee’s public hearing on the budget – only one person came to speak.

The budget is “woefully neglectful as for as really expanding potential for actual grants,” stalwart critic Diane Lauricella said, expressing “continued concern about the lack of a full-time grants writer in addition to a grants staff.”

Before the meeting began, Kydes looked at Hamilton and quipped, “It’s a fiscal director’s dream: $6 million in the Rainy Day Fund and nobody here.”

5 comments

Alan February 26, 2019 at 8:43 am

Norwalk seems much more responsive, in many ways, than Stamford.
There has been an outfit in Stamford’s South End crushing rock and debris for a very long time near the old PBI HQ that now houses students displaced by mold issues. And typically, nothing gets done in Stamford…the City that Does not Work.

Mitch Palais February 26, 2019 at 8:47 am

A 60mm rainy day fund, and a 30 mm undesignated fund balance indicates over taxation and a slush fund that is oversized.

Rainy day funds are for rainy days- one time capital expenses or financial calamities. Never for operating expense.

Reduce debt, and lower the mill rate so the coffers are not overflowing. Fund balances this big only leads to poor decision making.

Bryan Meek February 26, 2019 at 9:35 am

No comment from Senator Duff? Is he doing anything to stop the constant shafting of Norwalk by the state, or is he too busy trying to derail the BOE? And the Governor said he wants towns to eventually pony up 25% of TRS funding plus additional taxes for wealthy towns like Norwalk. Last year TRS contributions on behalf of Norwalk was $38 million, so these first few years is just a drop in the bucket of what is to come. And what guarantees do we have that our money will actually go into the plan seeing as it hasn’t been funded adequately for decades now?

Adam Blank February 26, 2019 at 11:07 am

Putting aside whether it is right or wrong of the State to ask municipalities to contribute toward teacher pensions, the rationale for how that burden would be doled out makes no sense. Lamont states: “Many of our school districts have CHOSEN to pay their teachers much more than the state median. … Our budget will ask every municipality to make a contribution toward NORMAL teacher costs, but towns like Greenwich, which pay teachers 30 percent more than the average salary, will pay more toward their pensions,” The logic of this being that towns like Greenwich (and Norwalk) are overpaying their teachers compared to the state median out of choice or poor management. Of course the truth is that Fairfield County and lower Fairfield County is a very expensive place to live and our highways are congested making travelling here from far difficult. A great number of BOE employees in these towns have very burdensome commutes which they overlook only because of the salary. By and large the pay is what it is because it is what is necessary to attract talent, it is not done as charity from municipalities to their BOE.

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